A Republic (Part 5): Civil War in the Age of Empires


    In a multiple part series, Madison365 columnist Matthew Braunginn will be analyzing the history of the United States to explore ideas of change, from the European invasion of what became the Americas, to the enslavement of Africans, racial oppression, the Civil Rights Movement, to the current day changing demographics in a shrinking world facing a new crisis of climate change and what the United States, and, in turn, the world are facing today.

    You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here and part 4 here. (-Ed.)

    The United States built its founding wealth off the backs of enslaved humans. At the eve of the Civil War, slaves as a property were worth more than the entire industrial capital of the United States. There is also a myth that slavery was restricted to the south, although in general it was less prevalent, there were slaves all around the United States, with over 450,000 people owned as slaves in 1860, in what would become the North during the Civil War. Also, southern plantation slavery feed the growth of the textile industry in the north, making cotton a truly global trade.

    Even though the cry of abolition grew, slavery was not a fading industry, but with growing abolitionist rhetoric coming from a young Republican party, states in the South that relied heavily on a slave economy grew weary; they wanted to protect their “property.”
    There were a few key developments out of the time before the American Civil War, the first was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1795, this secured the right of people that owned humans, to recover an escaped slave. And the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which expanded the reach of the 1795 act and created harsher punishments. The former act made it so that States had to assist in the capture and return of escaped enslaved people. The act of 1850 made it so that the Federal Government had to assist. Many people today argue that we are a nation of laws, as though laws and a moral society go hand in hand. These same people would have defended the Fugitive Slave Acts, as being an escaped slave as against the law. Being free for human beings inside the United States, “The Land of the Free,” was illegal.

    What rose out of these acts were slave catchers, they became deputies of the law and were some of the first professionalized law enforcement agencies of the United States. Many roots of modern day law enforcement can be drawn to slave catchers. Like most if not all institutions of the United States, it’s roots are in upholding white supremacy. These roots set in poisoned ground and grew poisonous institutions.

    Even abolitionists weren’t free of the sin of white supremacy, even the President that paved the way for the partial outlaw of slavery within the United States felt that blacks were an inferior race to that of whites:

    “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

    President Lincoln was not alone in these thoughts, many abolitionists did not support granting full human rights to Black Americans. But just the possibility in seeing the end of enslavement within the United States pushed southern states to secede from the Union. The Confederate States of America’s constitution explicitly protected the institution of slavery, as states seceded, their secession letters explicitly stated the protection of slavery as the reason for leaving the Union. As this progressed President Lincoln’s main goal, his moral imperative, was not ending the institution of slavery, but instead in keeping the Union together.

    “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

    The lines were drawn, in December 1960, the Fort Sumpter in Charleston South Carolina, was occupied by the Union, by the spring of 1961 President Lincoln ordered the fort to be resupplied. Confederate forces decided to move and attack the fort, April 12, 1961, firing the first shots of the Civil War.

    The Confederacy fought to preserve the institution of slavery and the Union fought to preserve the Union. Things became more complicated as it grew and became a battle over the institution of slavery. There were northern daft riots, explicitly around the fact that it was seen that northern troops were fighting a war for negroes.

    After the Civil War, there was the passage of the 13th Amendment, which partially outlawed slavery and bondage, unless one was convicted of a crime. Then you lose your rights to liberty and become property of the states. Many laws, including the Black Codes, were made targeting Black Americans, almost immediately after the Civil War.

    But what you have here, is the centralization of the importance of Black Americans in the United States. This importance has continued. It started with slavery being the central institution of the U.S. After the Civil War, Black culture became the the cultural center of the United States, something to be monetized, used, stolen, and abused, for the profit and entertainment of White America. Cheap Black labor, was also a driving force with convict lease programs and other forms of prison labor.

    This cultural centering and robbery, as well as the expansion westward, set the stage of the loss of what some would dub “white culture” if there ever was such a thing, free of enslavement and genocide. There is indeed Irish, Germany, British, Italian, etc. culture, but there is no white culture as something outside of genocide and enslavement, outside of whiteness, outside of the absence of Blackness or Browness.

    After the Civil War, there seemed to be an almost immediate attempt to revise history, coding the wants of southern states to preserve the institution of slavery, with “the war of northern aggression” and “states rights.” When it was really them wanting “state’s rights” to explicitly preserve the institution of slavery. But more importantly, because of the essentiality of preserving “whiteness” within the United States, reconstruction quickly became a failure.

    The failure of reconstruction was deep and reverberates to this day. In the years immediately following the Civil War, the United States had its best chance to confront the roots of white supremacy within itself, for truth and reconciliation. Instead, after some gains, there was a re-assertion of whiteness and the enforcement of its power structure throughout the nation. This wouldn’t be the last time witness would re-assert itself, but each time it has come with diminishing returns.

    Newly freed black Americans started pushing for social and economic gains, many ran for office, even though newly elected Black Americans and the Republican party took many state and congressional offices they didn’t hold an enormous amount of power. But during radical reconstruction, blacks held 15% of elected offices. Southern neighborhoods were integrated and new radical groups and state political parties began to arise in the south, integrated parties.

    Southern elites couldn’t let this stand and northern elites saw that it became more politically advantageous for them to side with their wealthy counterparts in the south. Shortly protections and pressure by the federal government fell by the waste side and most gains were lost. Segregation, Black Codes, convict lease, and Jim Crow became law of the land in the south and everyday practice in the north. These institutions were built through heavy lobbying by wealthy elites and propaganda spreading fear to working and poor white populations of the “animalistic negro.” Then terror…

    Beatings, lynchings, and America’s first homegrown terrorists, the KKK, sprang into existence. There were over 4,000 recorded lynchings of Black Americans from reconstruction until the Civil Rights movement. But this number doesn’t include the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the many race riots of white mobs burning, looting, and killing Black Americans. Of those who died at the hands of police, those who died in jail because of Black Codes and Convict Lease laws, and those that suffered physical beatings but not death. These are the years of terror in the United States.

    There was even a violent coup of a government within the United States, dubbed the Wilmington Insurrection, where white Democrats violently rose up to overthrow a democratically elected government in Wilmington, North Carolina, expelling Black leaders and taking control over the local government.

    The original terrorists of the United States, put upon its citizens, Black citizens, were by other American citizens, whites. Terror was cast down upon by white America, through lynchings, the KKK, massive race riots, and police. There was no place in the Union to escape this violence no piece of land this violence couldn’t be wrought down on. And yet, a nation that declares to never forget 9/11 has conveniently forgotten its own continued history of terrorism. It has taken no responsibility has been taken for these actions, white America never takes responsibility, yet demand everyone else does.

    But the pressure this violence created, against all people of color in America that have and continue to face it. The violence created a springboard of culture push back. In its fear of the negro, white America became disgustingly inhumanly fascinated by Black people. Beyond the horrid medical studies, there also grew a cultural obsession. This came in the form of propaganda, mocking, stealing, and commodification of Black culture. This pressure cooker created genius and greatness that sprouted through the oppression like a rose through the concrete.

    Black America was finding crevices to assert itself and just like black labor created the wealth foundation of the United States, soon Black America became its cultural foundation. Its essence. Because of this, there is an inescapable conclusion that the cultural value of black Americans will eventually lead to a massive ownership of cultural power within America itself. It is inevitable that such a labor, such a people’s impact, that the power pendulum will swing their way. This is the way of the world. By giving it space to grow, and because of black America’s place as the foundation of the nation itself, black culture joined in becoming the cultural foundation. It’s heart that gives it life. If it is not nurtured, eventually, like westerners do, they’ll dry up the resources providing death to this nation. But if there is investment, life will spring forth.

    Europe during this period continued their imperial and colonial wars, the battle for the global throne grew between them. Industrialization was on the rise, industrial war came with it, and so did growing class stratification. These series of conflicts in Europe set the stage for an industrial expansion of their attempt to colonize the world. Ideas of whiteness and race grew here just as much as the United States. Thomas Carlyle talked about Saxons as Germans, the superiority of Germans over other Europeans, especially the frenched. What we have here is twisting history to fits one’s needs. This has become a long habit of Europeans and whites. That talk of superiority, changing titles and histories to fit a narrative.

    You have the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and other conflicts throughout Europe. But the biggest impact was the mass expansion of the conquering of the continent of Africa. This was dubbed the era of “New Imperialism” and saw the addition of Germany as a growing European power, joining in the fray, with the Berlin Conference basically carving up the continent for European control. The rape and robbery of the continent was only paralleled by the genocide of the Native Americans by the United States. King Leopold II of Belgium ruled over the Congo, and committed a genocide of 10 million. Millions of more deaths, another European evil, to be conveniently forgotten and unaccounted for.

    But the philosophy was set, European conquering of the world was justified, to bring “civilization” to the world, through enslavement, rape, war, genocide, and robbery. The audacity that Western powers are the crown of the world, that its rightful place was standing on the neck of everyone else, was cemented.

    At the same moment, Europe expanded its colonialism, wars of conquest and genocide. The United States was doing the same. America’s expansion westward as the completion of a genocide started centuries earlier. The U.S. expansion westward, pushed indigenous nations and tribes further west, through brutal conflict and broken treaties. Defeating one nation, settling them in new lands, only to declare they must move again. Death marches, village massacres, and blood-stained fields – manifest destiny of greed.

    Within these wars, there was also the annexation of Mexico, the South West would never lose its roots, and this proximity made migration north inevitable. You can’t have neighbors and not have cultural exchange, it’s not how the world works. But again, through violence and oppression, a power structure with white American’s on top permitted a cultural exchange, as long as the power dynamics stayed within White America’s favor- social, economic, and cultural dynamics, this exchange was OK.

    The pendulum of history and power always shifts, change – a universal constant – as populations change cultural dynamics will change as well. Then comes social and economic changes. The United States and Europe pushed other cultures back and against a wall and in doing so they created the conditions of the pendulum backswing. As these powers solidified the rule of Western Civilization, the pushback was just starting. But these were powerful forces, meaning for every period of resistance a reprisal would always happen.

    As the world entered the 1900s, the stage was set for the bloodiest conflicts in human history. For cries for freedom and the backlash to those continued voices asserting themselves. All empires must come home and all civilizations must end, what they also do, for many different reasons, is cause migrations and also an exchange of cultures. Empires become mixed with the culture and people of those they conquer, making stopping the change impossible.

    “Culture preservation” is impossible, as they evolve and change with time. And since whiteness is looked upon as pure in the mind of those that became white, it can only be corrupted in those minds. This mentality of the pureness of whiteness means the natural protection of it. The very idea of white was created out of the idea of purity. Explicit white supremacists understand and preach this. But it is in everyday practice, in redlining, in gentrification, in white flight, cultural appropriation, and more … that these horrors this purity creates have become benign to America’s white citizens … it becomes “cultural deficiencies” as they attempt to wash the blood from their hands.

    Written by Matthew Braunginn

    Matthew Braunginn

    Matthew Braunginn is a Madison native and civil rights activist.